Sam Franklin AMCV2650/Lubar Price Response 10/17/11 One of the most interesting characters in Sally Price’s Paris Primitive

is the French notion of laïcité, so full of contradictions. Essentially the separation of church and state, laïcité depends on the idea that secular humanism is a privileged non-religion by which the state should run. Applied to cultural management, perhaps the purest example of this concept at work was in Price’s case of the churingas, the aboriginal Australian objects that are created to be seen only by privileged initiates. Price quotes two French anthropologists who had written defending their display in a 2001 exhibition, arguing that to respect the makers' religious rules for the objects by keeping them out of sight would be, in a way, a gross decontextualization. The objects were now the property of a Western museum where a different set of rules applied.1 The justification was that the state, and thus the museum, respects no religion. It is outside of the world of belief, and, presumably, within the world of positivist truth-seeking.

But, as Carol Duncan points out, if we think about museums as secular temples where visitors act out “rituals of citizenship,” their status no longer transcends religion. We can thus see them as among the affective apparatus that any hegemonic institution--whether a religious sect or a secular state--uses to support its world view. The Louvre is, to Duncan, the prime example of this strategy.2 Seen in this light, the French museum system’s commitment to laïcité easily fades over to a selective privileging of a French way of seeing and displaying, one that



Price, Sally. Paris primitive : Jacques Chirac’s museum on the Quai Branly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Carol Duncan, “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship,” in Lavine, Steven D. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Books, 1991. 93.

emerged hand in hand with museums and the other Enlightenment institutions that produce authority in a secular humanist state.

As Price points out, the commitment to laïcité in cultural affairs is perhaps a result of the French preoccupation with Frenchness, which is in turn as much a reaction to U.S. hegemonic influence as it is to hijab in schools. (Or, more accurately, laïcité is a concept that can be invoked in reference to either). But no matter the reasons for its current political usefulness, this ideology has fascinating expression in the characters of Kerchache and Chirac. Both are committed to bashing the idea of cultural hierarchy, and we must take them at their word--they want France to see the "genius" of non-European cultures, to move past its imperialistic ethnocentrism. Though there are reasons to be skeptical of their commitment to this, including the apparent unwillingness of the Musee Quai Branly (MQB) to take seriously any significant interpretation of said cultures within the museum, they are not necessarily being disingenuous. We must remember that Price is an anthropologist, and essentially sees the debate as one between anthropological ways of knowing and art historical ways of knowing, the latter of which she believes are by definition lacking in the kind of systemic relativism necessary to represent non-European cultures adequately. Indeed, Kerchache and Chirac seem to be uncritical of their own fitness to judge the art of other cultures, or of the museum's ability to represent it. Their brand of post-colonialism seems to reject anthropology, tied as it was historically to the colonial project, in favor of a color-blind aesthetic appreciation that alone can elevate “primitive” objects to the status of “fine art.” But what kind of relativism is this? Is the lack of attention paid to their own subject position evidence of absolute, unquestioned ethnocentrism, one which is bound to reproduce the prejudices that it purports to dismantle? Or is it a more humble kind of ethnocentrism, with France not at the center of the world, but with Frenchness nonetheless at the center of France? Are Kerchache and Chirac simply saying 'we are us, you are you. Neither is better than the other (but we are all better than the U.S.). We love your art, and this is what

we do with it here in France’? The latter may be more humble, and neatly dispatches with any pressure to include outside perspectives in the MQB. But at the same time such an ideal would betray the limits of official state secularism: Museum display would have to be acknowledged as subjective, a specific cultural practice--a ritual even--and not the universalizing platform Chirac and Kerchache purport it to be.

[The 2-3 page paper ends here. For an extended version, in which I relate the above discussion to American museums, continue reading below.]

How does this relate to the American scene? America, too, continually struggles with the question of pluralism and the republic: To what extent does everybody need to be on the same page to support a government of the people? Do Catholics have what it takes? Nonlandowners? Blacks? Communists? Non-English-speakers? In mainstream thought we've gone between melting pot and multiculturalism. Though there have been eras (during and after WWI, for example) in which conformity and consensus have been major political issues, the U.S. has not attempted to centralize cultural affairs to nearly the extent that France has.

In a way this makes sense: since the 1920s at the latest its been harder and harder to make a case that the U.S. has one cultural core. (Though some right-wing Christians have recently been making a case for it). 20th-century Pragmatism has a fluid, anti-positivist, individualist view of human affairs that sees culture not as the fount of human action, but as the result of it, the continually evolving social response to the material realities of everyday life. This may be one of the reasons we don't have a minister of culture, as Price points out.3 Nonetheless, though it may be tempered by a laissez-faire disposition, the urge for cultural


Price 27.

consensus has inscribed itself on the American landscape, for example in the Smithsonian Institution. In many ways, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is similar to the MQB. It houses and displays ethnology objects collected by anthropologists and enthusiasts during a long period of generally exploitative state relations with the people from whom the objects were collected. Like the MQB, the NMAI sought new exhibition strategies that selfconsciously attempt to correct the museological sins of an imperialist past. To that end, yet in ways at odds with it, both museums were established as separate institutions in separate buildings from their more broadly defined national or universal museum counterparts. Yet the interpretive strategy of the NMAI is virtually opposite that of the MQB. From the beginning of the planning process, the NMAI engaged and granted authority to members of various Native American tribes, and the exhibition design is heavy on interpretation and contextualization, though not from a singular curatorial point of view, but rather from multiple and oftentimes nonacademic, non-secular, points of view. Why would America allow such a fragmentary representation of its culture to exist on the National Mall itself? There is the aforementioned predisposition to accept multiculturalism as valid (though not without its critics, many and loud). But what else? As a republic founded on the same humanistic premises as France, why should the U.S. not be equally bent on creating a unified front to overcome the snaggles of pluralism? Perhaps it is because it is more secure in its hegemony. If we agree that France’s rejection of state multiculturalism is largely in the service of a strong unified defense against the seepage of U.S. culture, then perhaps the relative American permissiveness is due to a sense that there are really no sub-cultural differences that could effectively challenge or weaken its ability to function as a state. (Of course, there are plenty of voices currently resisting cultural relativism in education, media, and other sectors of society, and urging a “return” to “core values” and “traditional history.” This is a

significant voice in American politics, and I don’t mean to ignore it. I only mean to draw attention to the reasons that the NMAI could happen in the U.S., and the MQB in France).